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Tag: japanese society (page 1 of 1)

Welcoming 2021, even if reluctantly

Countries around the world are in lockdown over the winter holiday season, with various degrees of restrictions. As an American in Tokyo, Japan has felt like a miraculous bubble of normality in contrast with the strict regulations and rapid spread of COVID-19 in the past 9 months of countries like the USA, UK and other heavily-affected countries.

In fact, Japan has only ever had one incident even closely resembling a “lockdown,” which is the State of Emergency that was declared for the period of April 7 to May 25 2020. Since then, various levels of requests have been directed at businesses and travelers about what not to do, but nothing with major enforcement power (実行力) has been set forth. This is due to a lack of legal basis for restriction of travel and other behavior — at most the government can do is strongly request. The situation promises to change, however, as Prime Minister Suga aims to revise a relevant law that would make restrictions on businesses more powerful in the Diet session scheduled to start mid January.

Infection has spread gradually until December 2020, when numbers began to rise rapidly. As I write now, the Mayor of Tokyo has requested the national government declare a State of Emergency again, as soon as possible. The national government is now “considering and consulting with experts.” (Twitterverse has much to say about that: “And what have you been doing up ’til now!?”) Yet, the popular opinion is that the Prime Minister will wait until the law is revised.

Despite the hurricane of COVID-19 ravishing several countries around the world, and the gradually increasing tension in Japan, our small family was able to have a Christmas and New Year’s on par with previous years. One big factor in this is that we are the “Tokyo office” of a much larger firm (read: family) headquartered in Seattle. All of my Christmases have been remote since moving to Japan in October 2011. In that sense, COVID-19 has been a great equalizer because now my American family all, for the most part, connect via video chat. We’ve learned that length of call and seriousness of topic are inversely proportional to the number of participants. We’ve learned not to talk all at the same time. And we’ve learned who to mix and match together. It’s rather businesslike, in a good way. Bonus: I can blame my Christmas presents arriving late to the US due to a major back-up in postal deliveries. This is no joke. When I mailed the presents in November, I was told only via land was available and that they would arrive anywhere between 1 and 3 months later. C’est comme ça.

This holiday season has been a mixed bag. Our family is happy and healthy and our daughter is completely unaware of the extraordinary pandemic. I somehow achieved a personal best at the casual half marathon on December 24, held along the Arakawa River. No warm up but an inkling that I could run a little faster, and lazy competitiveness netted me a time of 1:38:42. This is a full 3 minutes under my previous half marathon PB recorded at a real race — the Tsurugaoka Half Marathon — which I properly trained for. Just another lesson that the universe works in mysterious ways.

Like divorced families with dual custody (that was my family!), bicultural families get to celebrate twice: Christmas and the Japanese new year, oshogatsu. We, of course, take full advantage of this.

Starting off with a local brew from Oregon supplied by my brother, imbibed on New Year’s Eve and culminating in the once-in-a-lifetime, “because COVID-19” splurge purchase of an extravagant new years meal (osechiryouri) by my mother-in-law, this year was by no means lacking. In the back of all of our minds was the likelihood that things would get worse before they would get better, and that we better get while the getting is good. It’s this kind of indulgence that helps catapult us into the self-improvement regimes that are so common during the New Year.

And this year’s omikuji (fortune) was not letting me off the hook. For the last couple years, I’ve been blessed with fortunes on the “lucky” side of the spectrum and life has followed suite. This year gave me a 末吉 suekichi (AKA, not quite lucky). It’s situated so on the grade of luck, with leftmost being most lucky:

大吉 ⇒ 中吉 ⇒ 小吉 ⇒ 吉 ⇒ 末吉 ⇒ 凶 ⇒ 大凶

According to Japanfreak.com,

大吉-Daikichi: Excellent luck, Great luck, Great blessing
中吉-Tyukichi: Fair luck, some luck, Middle blessing
小吉-Syoukichi: A little luck, Small blessing
吉-Kichi:  Good luck, Blessing
末吉-Suekichi: Uncertain luck, Least blessing, Ending blessing, Near blessing
凶-Kyou:  Bad luck, Curse
大凶-Daikyo: Terrible luck, Certain disaster, Great curse


The omikuji came as a little bit of a wake-up-call. “Don’t take your fortune for granted,” it told me. I was to strive hard at work and at my studies. “But I finished my Masters already!” I thought defiantly.

I can’t deny that there is a kernel of truth in its terse instructions. In my field of communications, one is never done learning. One has to constantly update best practices, keep an ear to the ground for consumer sentiment, and put out high-quality content in order to make the most of the current business situation and achieve the best possible results. This imperative is even more urgent during a global pandemic.

The omikuji was just a gentle reminder that a new year didn’t mean I could just coast. That said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, so I will mix it up this year and challenge myself. More to write on that later.

Thanks to this reminder, I feel that I can pry myself from the myopia that is a new Netflix subscription and delicious holiday food to transition into a proactive and constructive space new year.

I still haven’t colored in the eye of my daruma and set my goal for this year. That’s on my to-do list.

“planet daruma” by Alessandro Grussu is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How did this holiday season bring you into the new year? Any realizations or new endeavors in 2021?

How cancel culture is a little like 村八分, and social media is the new “village”

The phrase “cancel culture” has been popping up more and more lately. While the phrase has been around for years, most prominently on US Twitter, mainstream media and public figures have caught on too.

Google Trends results for “cancel culture”

Cancel culture, for those who aren’t avid Twitter users, is when many thousands of users call for boycott (ending) of someone who has made an untoward comment at some point in the past, typically about a minority demographic.

村八分 (mura hachibu), for those who aren’t Japanese speakers, means the shunning of someone from social life. It is said to have originated in the Edo Era and refer to a villager being excluded from 80% (hachibu) of village (mura) life due to a transgression against social rules including failing to contribute to communal work, etc. The 80% refers to the parts of village life the transgressor is excluded from: births, wedding, construction, etc.. The remaining 20% contains the communal issues they are included in to protect the village as a whole: fighting fires and managing funerals.

People are in danger of being mura hachibu-ed in modern Japanese society too, and the word is well-used, though now it refers to exclusion from polite society more than social services.

Social media has created modern villages full of mobilized villagers. Our posts may be subject to judgement of many millions of these villagers, who tend towards mobbing. It’s no coincidence the New York Times made a cancel culture spoof video set in medieval Europe:

But there is a major distinction between cancel culture and mura hachibu. The former’s effect is almost completely contained on social media. Damning, yes, if your livelihood is built mainly there, but decidedly less devastating if you’ve built your fame anywhere else.

Meanwhile, the mura hachibu affects the shunned in a very real way — it cuts them off from the very social fabric of their community. In the U.S., it is very rare to find an issue that all agree on, so being shunned on social media by even a large group of users doesn’t translate into real-world shunning — There is always another group there ready to accept the shunned. (That said, cyber bullying is a real and serious problem in Japanese society contributing to mental health problems and even suicide)

The Central Park Karen case is a recent example of someone shunned in real life — this “Karen” was fired. She took real-world action and called the real-world police on a Black man, just at a time when the American public and local government were keenly aware of the dangers of police brutality against unarmed Black men. Her carefully written apology fell on deaf ears.

sticky note with apology
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

So is the apology, a point of great difference between the U.S. and Japan, a waste of breath? In the U.S., it appears it might be.

A 2015 study found that subjects felt apologies made them feel “unaffected” or made them “more likely to desire that the individual be punished.” A smaller study found that no matter what the apology was for, the very act of apologizing appeared to lower support for the politician in question. (And maybe to no surprise, as an “apology” originally meant a defense of oneself or justification.)

Let’s look at modern Japan’s treatment of the famous who have broken social rules.

In recent years, many a politician has scandalized the Japanese public with embezzling, corruption, gambling, etc. while countless celebrities have filed for flashy divorces, been busted with drugs, or been caught cheating on their picture-perfect wives.

In any of these cases, a perfunctory 謝罪会見 (shazai kaiken; apology press conference) is held, where the guilty party, invariably dressed in a black suit and with solemn make up and hair, expresses their regret for having inconvenienced everyone with their scandal with a deep, X-second-long bow. (It’s such classic material that several online media publish best/worst apology rankings annually.)

But unlike mura hachibu, despite the searing headlines and intense media focus, many of these transgressors eventually wiggle their way back into the political or entertainment worlds. (Interestingly enough, some celebrities make their comebacks in nontraditional media channels, such as online video)

Japanese idol, Junosuke Taguchi does a dogeza after release from a detention center where he was held on charges of possession of marijuana, a serious offense in Japan. (Sankei Digital)

In fact, public apologies and even 土下座 (dogeza), one of the highest forms of apology in modern Japan, seem to have appeared on the scene after World War 1. This is also the time of mass media’s advent. The Japanese public has grown cynical, and dogeza are now the target of derision or suspected of being a “performance.” Yet, apologies are still requisite in the public realm. A successful return to former glory is subject to some complicated calculus based on original popularity, sincerity of apology, public sentiment at the time, and the severity of the violation.

While it seems clear what the “rules” are in the case of Japan’s shunning, and public figures tend to stay away from the touchy subjects.

In the U.S. having no opinion on a subject lead to attack as quickly as having the wrong one. Even a thoughtfully presented argument on one topic can be reduced down to its insinuations, alleged intolerance and XXXphobia, all while ignoring the veracity of the parts.

In the U.S., stronger demands for political correctness and sensitivity towards a wide diversity of groups turn the public sphere into a minefield of sorts. One statement can trigger an explosion, and no amount of explaining and dialogue seems to help. Even brands need beware: “the majority of consumers (76%) have taken an action in response to a brand doing something they disagreed with, including no longer buying from the brand, switching to a competitor, or discouraging others from buying from or supporting that brand,” explains Alison DaSilva, Managing Director, Purpose and Impact, Zeno Group.

Some say it has gone too far. A group of intellectuals in Harper’s Bazaar call the current situation an “Intolerant Climate.” The nature of the debate, particularly on Twitter where posts are limited to 180 letters, are tending towards the ad hominem and do not contribute to a constructive debate, they claim.

So how do we balance tolerance with free speech?

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

Bashing itself may be a gut reaction born from the fear that an unpleasant statement could spread and influence if not nipped at the bud. Our answer to that may lie in trust.

At the end of the day, we must trust that

1) there is such a thing as truth,

2) our fellow citizens have the ability to understand truth while also having an individual opinion

3) constructive debate can be had if all parties make a concerted effort

4) even if we don’t all agree, we can create a shared society where none of us are murahachibu-ed.

The world is no longer filled with isolated villages bound with oppressive practices, is it really in our best interest to recreate them? A well-reasoned, well-researched, polite counterargument is perhaps one of the best ways we can contribute to our own societies.